Transcript for Giving Voice: Mike Jackson
I’m Lindsey Beckley and this Giving Voice, from Talking Hoosier History.
Beckley: During each segment of giving voice, we’ll feature a different discussion from someone who, in some way, we hope will add to your understanding of a topic we’ve covered in the main podcast. We may talk to industry experts, historians, or people personally connected with the main story. It’s our mission to allow a deeper understanding of the topic, while providing a platform for those in the communities we cover in our work.
Our last episode focused on a group of families in South Bend, Indiana who came together to rise above housing discrimination in the city through their housing Co-op Better Homes of South Bend. A couple of weeks ago, I had the privilege of talking to someone who grew up in the neighborhood developed by Better Homes – Mike Jackson. Today, we bring you that discussion. If you haven’t listened to the episode, called “From Redlining to Better Homes: The Better Homes of South Bend Housing Cooperative,” I’d suggest doing that now, as it gives some great context on the discussion.
Jackson: My name’s Mike Jackson. Funny thing: when I say I’m Mike Jackson, they don’t realize my real name’s Michael Jackson. It’s such a slight little thing but people don’t notice. And then, finaly they…they realize.
I grew up – I was born living on Prairie Aveneue. Prairie Avenue was right next to the Studebaker plant, where my dad, who had returned from World War II in France, started working. And the thing I remember about Prairie Avenue is that it was kind of like a housing project but it was pretty much for returning military people. I just remember all the families that were there and all the kids that were there to play with and I remember my grandmother also lived in the same neighborhood too. And the circus train – which I didn’t say before – the circus train pulled up behind our Prairie Ave neighborhood every year too. Ringling Brothers! And that was a real adventure and there was – you’d hear all the sounds of the elephants and the lions and all of that kind of stuff. So, I remember them coming several different times.
My family was on – in – in this Prairie Avenue neighborhood because my mom and all the ladies – my aunt, my grandmother had come up from Mississippi and the south while my dad and the other men were off to war. And so there were a number of other men in the neighborhood that had returned from World War II.
We were the first house built on Elmer Street – completed. There were other housed to come, and they came real fast. But we were on Elmer Street all by ourselves for a little while and as a little kid, I just remember going from our neighborhood on Prairie Avenue to Elmer Street. There we were, all by ourselves and we were the only new house on the block. There was just maybe one or two other houses. There was a basement house straight across from us where a white family lived and my brother and I, my brother Greg, we were the first black students to go to Marquette Elementary. And so, I really got consumed in my kindergarten year and my first year school at Marquette as that got going and everybody else from the prairie avenue neighborhood was going to build houses – I think 22 families built houses – started getting their houses complete and coming to Elmer Street.
Beckley: And what was the integration process like for you? Was it an easy process as far as entering into the school? Were you accepted?
Jackson: Now, I didn’t really know. I kinda didn’t really know I was integrating the school but as I think – as I thought about it, my mom always took great, great, great pride and care to make sure we always went to school clean. We’d have on some blue jeans and the t-shirt was kinda what the style was in those years – ’52, ’53. But she always made sure we were looking good and there was no reason to look down at us. She took big pride in that. And me, though, the teachers, and the principle, and it seemed like everybody always was so nice. So, they may have been making an extra effort to be nice to us. Pretty much didn’t run into any problems that I saw as a little kid in my first years at Marquette.
Beckley: Even as more and more children came, it seems like it was a pretty smooth process, both through growing the community and everybody being accepted and – aside from the Little League story, which I think you referenced in Gabrielle’s book.
Jackson: Right. And that little league story: we were baseball players. We’d play stickball out in the street and in rocks and whatever and finally we got to play organized baseball and of course we wanted to play in the little league with the shiny stadium and nice uniforms and everything but they cut off the boundaries to the little league two blocks before Elmer Street. And, I mean, after Elmer Street, we realized there were only two more blocks with no houses on it. They could have taken up that whole are and, you know, been that area for the little league. But they cut it off. You know they cut it off. Eventually, we realized that they cut it off, you know, we were little black kids. And we were pretty much hurt by that. But we had great baseball cuz we played in the park league, but all we got was the shirt and cap. In the little league, you go the whole uniform. And in the little league, there was a fence where you could hit home runs over the fence and all those kind of things. But we, you know, we missed out on that. We have to ride our bikes to the different ball parks to play in the park leagues, which we loved – there’s just great memories, riding to all the different parks and playing the different teams at all the different parks. We were representing the Marquette school park on our baseball team.
Beckley: So, when you were growing up on Elmer Street, did you realize in the moment that you were living in a bit of a unique community?
Jackson: Ummm… I, yea, pretty soon I did. Because, when we went to Marquette, we were the only black families going – walking, we walked to school, we walked home from lunch, I mean, it was the good ol’ school days. But we were the only black families – we were the only 2 blocks of houses that had minority families going to Marquette and we knew…we realized that. Yea, we realized we were different at Marquette and so we did – and then, too, I mean, there’s always Jim Crow and all those things going on but you know, my mom and dad, we realized that they had little things that was thrown in their face. The little prejudices and this and that. We knew those kind of things were going on so we knew we were a different group.
Beckley: Did you realize while living there, like, did you guys discuss how you got there and did your parents bring that up much and did you discuss that amongst the other children? And did you talk much about Better Homes of South Bend itself?
Jackson: Eventually, we did. Eventually, we realized that the way the houses had come about was that our dads, and moms, and dads, had gotten together and they had kinda – we were that sure how, but they had built these houses. They had built our street in a place that normally we couldn’t build. So we knew they had done some different things and some special things to get our houses built so, yea, we talked about that all the time.
Another reason we talked about it, too, though, is, like, when we eventually got into high school, you know, here we are still these same two blocks, but on the west side, you know, we weren’t living on the west side, but we were going to school with all the kinds from, you know, the west side of South Bend. So, even they realized on the west side that, you know, there’s two blocks of black families over there on Elmer Street. So, we were kind of like tagged the Northsiders or whatever.
Beckley: Do you think that your, I don’t know, your childhood and growing up on Elmer Street and in that community had a big impact on your life and do you think that it affected the way that you grew up in any significant way?
Jackson: Well, we saw that our parents – our moms and dads – all got along and our moms and dads, you know, they had gatherings on Elmer Street and they had picnics and they had cookouts and we saw them always together. And of course, when they’re together, we’re there with them too, so we’re all hanging out and this and that. So, there was just this unsaid something – feeling – that we were all more family because we were all kind of isolated. So that just kind of, you know, from our observations, you could just kind of feel something different about the whole thing.
Beckley: They went through something together and that kind of created a bond that might not have been there otherwise?
Jackson: Right. Sure. And, you know, since we’re in and out of everybody’s house, whatever Keith had or whatever Charles had, whatever I had too, was like my stuff. And, you know, my mom’s baking us cooking and bringing them out while were playing stick ball in the street. We’d go to somebody else’s house and they’re giving her this and that. It was kinda like what the times were like to. Cuz, you know, you could stay for dinner sometimes, stay for dinner. But sometimes they say you go home and eat dinner. But sometimes, you’d stay and it didn’t matter. It was just like, we were all related. And we were related because we were all Elmer Street. So that stuck with us as, you know, we branched out and went to high school and this and that. We were Elmer Street.
Beckley: So, I think to wrap it up, do you have any favorite stories of your time on Elmer Street or something that’s just kind of quintessentially your childhood that you’d like to share? Just a brief story?
Jackson: As far as stories, it’s like on Saturdays – I mentioned that in the book – you’d get up on Saturdays and you’d hear all the lawnmowers running. And, you know, everybody’d be cutting their grass. All the dad’s would be cutting their grass.
The houses, and the places, and the neighborhood and the blocks all just looked so good and everybody would be going by complimenting each other on how their yard looked. And they’d be buying – some of the dads would be buying hedges or their getting different things to make sure the houses looked good and there was just a big pride and, you know, I’m proud of how the neighbors houses look, and our house too. But it wasn’t like a jealousy – it was a pride. Cuz – it was kinda like we felt like I guess we were in the spotlight or under a microscope. What are those families doin’ on Elmer Street? So that’s one thing I really remember too.
And then, eventually, I became the person cutting the grass at my dads, you know, at our house, too. Which was – oh wow! Now, he’s giving it over to me to let me cut the grass. Ya know, and keep that same pride going.
Beckley: I’m not sure many teenagers felt that way.
Jackson: I know, I know. But we did. Cuz we were always seeing them doing that.
Beckley: Do you feel like, perhaps, you on Elmer Street were held up to a different standard from other families in the surrounding areas? Cuz you were different.
Jackson: Oh definitely. Yes. Definitely. We were – and we met that standard, too, though. And surpassed it. And a lot of times, as we walked to school. So we walked, you know, we walked like…blocks and blocks to school. I won’t get into how far we used to walk to school in the snow and all that, but we always knew our block looked as good as and better, often than other blocks looked. You know, and were proud of that too. We were proud to say we lived on Elmer Street.
Beckley: Mike, I want to thank you again for coming onto our show today and for talking a little bit about your childhood and South Bend. We really appreciate your time.
Jackson: I really appreciate you paying attention to us and recognizing us.
Beckley: Of course. It definitely is a story worth telling so we’re happy to tell it.
Once again, I’d like to thank Mike for taking the time to talk with me about his experiences growing up on Elmer Street. If you want to learn more about life on Elmer Street, I highly recommend Gabrielle Robinson’s book Better Homes of South Bend, which was referenced a few times in that discussion.
We’ll be back next month with another episode of Talking Hoosier History. In the meantime, follow the Indiana Historical Bureau on Facebook and twitter for daily doses of Indiana History tidbits. Subscribe, rate, and review to Talking Hoosier History wherever you get your podcasts.
Thanks for listening.